Lauren Sackett 3 Hodags

Like a true Hodag, Lauren Sackett of the Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce fought through pandemic challenges. The Business News photo by Jerry Rhoden

When COVID-19 forced closures of businesses from March through May 2020, the Rhinelander community was able to rally around its suddenly troubled economic engine.

Consider it a silver lining to the mass layoff of 289 workers in February 2019 when Petco closed Drs. Foster & Smith, a staple of the community since 1983.

“A group of local leaders met (after the layoffs),” said Lauren Sackett, in her second year as executive director of the Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce. “We held job fairs, and lots of those people were able to find new jobs.”

So there was, if not a blueprint, at least a rough draft in place for how the chamber and community could come together to help businesses affected by the COVID shutdowns.

“It was a mixed effect,” Sackett said. “Tourism and retail took a bigger hit, obviously, but restaurants were able to implement curbside pickup.”

Even when businesses began reopening to varying degrees in May, most continued with the modifications they’d implemented.

“We worked with local leaders and city hall,” Sackett said of unifying standards to balance safety with economic security. “Whether they were members or not, we wanted to help them with any changes they might need to make to their business practices.”

The chamber reconfigured its website to become a hub of pandemic-related information.

Whether they were members or not, we wanted to help them with any changes they might need to make to their business practices (during the pandemic).

— Lauren Sackett,

executive director, Rhinelander Area Chamber

of Commerce

The chamber also helped connect 175 local businesses with $430,000 from the first phase of the “We’re All In” state grant. The site helped highlight businesses’ efforts and results by ramping up its social-media usage.

“We were sharing to social media about twice a week,” Sackett said.

Like much of Wisconsin’s Northwoods region, Hodag country relies heavily on tourism. It normally accounts for more than 2,000 jobs and nearly a quarter-billion dollars just in Rhinelander’s home of Oneida County. The Hodag Country Festival, for example, averages more than 16,000 people for each of its nine days, and the inherent lodging, food, and beverage. The festival was one more casualty of 2020.

The county was able to recoup some of its lost tourism dollars with more than $300,000 from the TRAVEL grant from the Department of Tourism. About $90,000 of this went to the Rhinelander chamber.

“About 40 percent of our revenue comes from programs and grants,” Sackett said. “We lost about $50,000-$60,000 from that.” Necessity sometimes being the mother of invention, the chamber reconfigured some of those events to account for a certain flexibility and found that some will stick around.

Its annual Art Fair on the Courthouse Lawn was canceled last year due to COVID, resurrecting as a series of pop-up events in the chamber parking lot.

Two “makers” – artists, crafts, and the like – joined with one food vendor. This gave regular attendees of the courthouse lawn an outlet, while limiting gatherings. It proved popular enough that, even with the regular event being back on the schedule for June, the popups will return in fall.

Another offshoot of distancing has been the compartmentalization of the chamber’s “things to do” information. Like most chambers, Rhinelander’s offers “101 Things to do in Rhinelander,” but subcategories include info packets of three-day getaways that package like-minded events and attractions for people who might be visiting for a specific purpose.

“Northwoods Gearheads,” for example, lays out three days of how ATV enthusiasts can find trails to specific destinations. “Northwoods Detective” guides visitors toward historical sites. Each packet offers marketing opportunities for businesses interested in reaching such demographics.

The Christmas season saw another round of COVID/community adaptations, when the “Let It Glow” reverse parade let folks drive past light displays and vote on their favorites. And a series of “Zoom with Santa” videos added a digital twist to tradition.

“It was all a real source of community pride,” Sackett said.

Hodag Pride gets some cover from the elements in the new Hodag Dome. The 128,000 square-foot multi-sport facility is the largest inflated high school dome in the country. Inside are a full-size football field, a soccer field, two regulation-size softball and youth baseball fields, and multiple smaller courts and tracks both for student-athletes as well as the community. The dome held its grand opening Feb. 1 and in mid-February already held a collegiate softball tournament.